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In past years, the University of Michigan’s Wallenberg Medal has been awarded to anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, civil rights leader John Lewis and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. This year medal will be given to two national anti-gun violence groups Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere and March for Our Lives. These awardees are distinct in two ways: They are organizations, not individuals, and they are the youngest recipients of the award in its 26-year history.
The award was created to commemorate the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, a U-M alum who saved more than 80,000 Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II. It is awarded to those who “demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, to defend the integrity of the powerless, and to speak out on behalf of the voiceless… (and) demonstrate that one person, individually or collectively, can make a difference in the struggle for a better world.”
According to Rackham Assistant Dean John Godfrey, the chair of the Wallenberg Committee, the committee normally spends around three to five hours selecting recipients of the award. This year, though, Godfrey said it took less time than usual.
“It was a rather shorter discussion than usual, because the committee felt that the issue of gun violence had become so urgently important, that there were fresh, new and courageous voices being raised and that this warranted being recognized,” Godfrey said.
Many have admired the commitment to social action displayed by people who are too young to buy a drink or rent a car. First-year law student Martese Johnson, a community activist, said he was impressed by the resilience of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. following the shooting in February.
“I’ve been extremely inspired by Generation Z – the kids in Parkland,” Johnson said. “They found way to sustainably grow. From protesting myself on the streets of Chicago to these movements now … We need to keep thinking of way to create systems for sustainable change.”
Godfrey also commented on the rise in youth activism over the past few years.
“In my lifetime I saw a moment in the civil rights struggle where the youth, people of this age, were personally committed on the frontlines, but it’s been years since there has been this level of sustained social movement, activism, voice raising,” Godfrey said. “The committee agreed that this is highly significant and that the issue of gun violence has become so significant in so many places that has affected so many lives that this work should be recognized.”
While the Parkland students’ movement, March for Our Lives, has received national media attention, many note that BRAVE and other similar organizations seem to be erased from the narrative.
“It is significant and very important that both be honored because while they do different work, they both are dealing with providing our citizens, particularly our youth, with safe and secure environments that nurture them,” Elizabeth James, program associate of Afroamerican and African studies, said. “No one should have to grow up in fear.”
According to Godfrey, the selection committee felt it was important to acknowledge the work of both organizations.
“The Parkland killings were horrific and galvanizing, and the killings that take place on a nearly daily basis in south Chicago and west Chicago haven’t grabbed the national conscience the way they should,” he said. “So we really felt it was important to acknowledge both … The young people who are with BRAVE and other organizations have come out of a long and outstanding tradition.”